Getting over the finishing line in a title race is an unenviable task. With players knowing that they are on the brink of something special, the pressure intensifies each week.
It is an especially difficult period for sides who are not used to winning leagues. They are fully aware that they must seize their opportunity, for it may not present itself again any time soon.
This was the challenge facing Roma in the 2000/01 season. In the previous two campaigns they had watched their city rivals Lazio nearly throw away the league in spectacular fashion twice. However the Biancocelesti learnt from their mistakes in 1998/99 and became the first Serie A champions of the 21st century the following season, just.
Those successive seasons signalled how inexperienced title contenders can falter at the final hurdle, something that Roma would have to be wary of, whilst also confirming that Lazio had become the capital’s top team. The Giallorossi needed to respond, and in the summer of 2000 they did just that.
In came Walter Samuel and Jonathan Zebina to shore up the defence, alongside goal machine Gabriel Batistuta, who was trusted to score the goals that would fire the side to the top of the table, and seal just the third title in the club’s history.
Those additions paid off handsomely, as Roma soared to the summit of Serie A under the stewardship of Fabio Capello. Batistuta lived up to expectations, and was ably supported by the classy playmaker Francesco Totti.
Accompanying the formidable pair was Vincenzo Montella. Whilst Batistuta and Totti grabbed most of the headlines, Montella certainly played his part in making Roma the finest attacking force in Italy.
Heading into the final three games of the season, Roma were firmly on course for their first championship in 18 years. Their outstanding forward trio had netted 40 league goals between them, and the side had a seemingly insurmountable six-point lead over Juventus.
Yet their run-in was far from simple. They were set to face a relegation-threatened Napoli on the penultimate weekend, before ending the season at home to a Parma side looking to secure Champions League football.
Before all of that, though, they had to take on Milan at the Stadio Olimpico. This was not a vintage Milan side by any means, but was one that still possessed some iconic names within its ranks such as Paolo Maldini and Andriy Shevchenko.
Hours before the Sunday evening showdown, Juventus cut Roma’s lead to three points as they edged past Perugia 1-0. The pressure had been cranked up. How would Roma react?
The league leaders would have wanted an early goal to settle their nerves. That did not materialise. With Capello preferring to start Marco Delvecchio over Montella, Roma failed to earn a breakthrough in the first 45 minutes, and disaster struck on the stroke of half-time.
Brazilian winger Serginho curled in a corner which was met by an unmarked Francesco Coco, who planted his header into the bottom corner. As the whistle blew for the interval, Roma were halfway towards suffering a damaging defeat. Were they about to meet the same fate that Lazio had suffered two years earlier?
Clearly not satisfied by what he had seen in the first half, Capello introduced Montella at the break. The striker nearly had an instant impact, hitting the post with a close-range volley. It was starting to look like this might not be Roma’s evening.
Then, with 64 minutes on the clock, Montella picked the ball up on the right flank, midway inside the Milan half. Milan’s defence were not set as they chased back towards their own goal, yet the back four still looked relatively comfortable, with Batistuta the only other forward involved in the attack.
Montella slowed to almost walking pace as he assessed his options. It quickly became apparent that there was no clear pass available. At this point he burst into life, using the outside of his left boot to skip past the challenge of Federico Giunti.
Now he was approaching the penalty box, and his expert footwork had created space for him to pick his next move. As he looked up, Batistuta had mistimed his run, and was standing in an offside position. Cafu had made an impressive overlapping run, but may also have strayed beyond the last defender. Totti joined the attack belatedly, although a square pass would have left him in a similar shooting position.
All this meant that the best solution was for Montella to have his own shot on goal. The main question was: which type of finish should he attempt? Should he go for all-out power and risk his strike being blocked by the outstretched leg of Maldini? Or would a curling effort be his best bet?
In the end, he went for neither. With veteran goalkeeper Sebastiano Rossi advancing outside his six-yard box, Montella went for an audacious chip. If it had sailed harmlessly over the bar, he would have likely been ridiculed. Thankfully for the forward and Roma, it did not. Montella executed the skill perfectly, lifting the ball beyond the outstretched arm of Rossi and into the top corner.
It was a goal of sheer brilliance at a crucial stage in the game and the season. In front of a full house at the Stadio Olimpico, Montella had produced a moment of magic, and everybody knew it.
The noise from the crowd was deafening, but the most telling reaction to the goal was from Totti. Roma’s captain chased after Montella, leaping on the scorer’s back as he caught up with him. Even as the celebrations died down, he grabbed Montella’s shirt, yelling in delight and amazement at what his teammate had just done.
Great players understand the significance of goals, and Totti knew that Montella had just scored a stunner to put Roma on the brink of the Scudetto, shutting the door on Juventus’ late push for the title.
The game would eventually end 1-1, meaning Roma held a four-point advantage with two matches to play. They could afford a slip-up against Napoli, and still have their fate in their own hands heading into the final day.
Two weeks later, they earned a 2-2 draw in Naples, and seven days after, on an emotional day in Rome, they were crowned champions when they beat Parma 3-1. Fittingly, Totti, Montella and Batistuta were all on the scoresheet as the side finished the campaign with an emphatic victory.
Yet it was that Montella goal against Milan that was arguably the biggest moment in those final weeks of a dramatic season. It could have all gone wrong. When Milan went in front, it very nearly did. And then Montella had the bravery to try something different, and it worked. It was a goal worthy of putting the finishing touches on a memorable campaign for the red side of Rome.
Words by: Sam Brookes. @sambrookes3177